State, federal prosecutors create new team to pursue overdose cases

  • U.S. Reps from New Hampshire Frank Guinta (R) and Annie Kuster (D) and U.S. Rep. from Maine Bruce Poliquin (R) hear testimony at a bipartisan field hearing on opioids at St. Anselm Monday. Ella Nilsen, Monitor staff—Ella Nilsen, Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/26/2016 12:49:11 AM

Top law enforcement officials are creating a new team of state and federal prosecutors to give extra attention to the growing number of opiate overdose cases in New Hampshire.

The new effort will be led by Attorney General Joe Foster and U.S. Attorney Emily Gray Rice and include all of the drug prosecutors in both offices.

Foster said the team’s creation comes as officials are tightening techniques for investigating overdose deaths as crimes, rather than untimely deaths.

“Any death is sad; this drug is just causing a level of overdose deaths that’s warranted to push on this initiative,” Foster said in an interview Monday.

While he said the focus should be on all opiates, the drug spurring the action is fentanyl, a cheap synthetic painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin that has been flooding the market and is connected to nearly two-thirds of all drug deaths in the state.

“Heroin is horrible. Fentanyl is a serial killer,” Foster said. “We have to do something about this.”

With the number of drug deaths in the state skyrocketing, Foster said law enforcement have started to deal with these cases differently.

The new protocols will underscore consistency, including interviewing potential witnesses, checking for prescription drug bottles and securing access to cell phone records that may contain evidence of a drug deal, Foster said.

More people using heroin and fentanyl in the state contributed to 433 fatal drug overdoses in 2015 and 43 so far this year.

“Sadly, with 430 deaths, not all of them will be able to be investigated,” Foster said. However, with additional resources provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said he hopes high-level dealers will be caught and prosecuted.

“If the death occurs, there’s a family, there’s a loved one who has been lost, and I think justice has to be applied to that,” he said.

Foster said the move builds on a previous initiative taken by his office at the end of last year to “treat overdose deaths as crime scenes and to bring to justice those who have sold drugs to overdose victims.”

With New Hampshire’s rate of per capita overdose deaths the third-highest in the nation, law enforcement officials and health care and treatment providers are increasingly working together to stem the tide of addiction.

Overdose numbers were on the minds of the audience members at a bipartisan hearing held by U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Frank Guinta at Saint Anselm College on Monday.

The legislators heard from those advocating for expanded treatment capacity in New Hampshire, which ranks second-lowest for treatment program capacity in the nation.

Sitting in front of Kuster and Guinta, New Hampshire Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau continued to lobby for more drug courts in the state to reduce the number of people sent to jail or prison because of their addiction.

With seven out of 10 inmates in the state suffering from addiction, Nadeau said drug courts are a better alternative to reduce recidivism.

“Prison does not address (that) behavior,” she said. “Prison cultivates addiction and it turns offenders into more effective criminals. As judges, we see those people over and over again.”

Advocates also argued for more prevention and early intervention for drug users.

“It is an addiction epidemic, not just an opioid addiction epidemic that we are faced with,” said Traci Fowler, who serves on the Prevention Task Force. “Let’s focus on root causes.”

Fowler said young people using substances has a direct correlation to adult addiction; a 2011 study found that 90 percent of Americans addicted to alcohol, tobacco and drugs started using these substances before they turned 18.

She asked Guinta and Kuster to fight for continued federal funding for prevention programs targeting their messaging toward young people.

“Prevention is not just about programs in schools, it is about community engagement, it is about advocacy,” Fowler said. “We must continue to advocate for prevention.”

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